tv Tavis Smiley PBS August 27, 2010 12:00am-12:30am PDT
from los angeles, i am tavis smiley. tonight, we continue our look at new orleans, five years after hurricane katrina, and the inspiring story of xavier xuniversity president, dr. norman francis. he lost his home during the storm and what is unspeakable damage that forced xavier to close for nearly five months. but they became a metaphor for the beating heart of new orleans. tonight, we will hear his story of loss, survival, hope, and renewal in his own words. our look at new orleans, five years after hurricane katrina, coming up right now. >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i'm james. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference, you help us all
live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and answer, nationwide insurance is happy to help tavis improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] tavis: among the many facets that makes new orleans the great city is its deep-rooted college community. schools like to lane, loyola, xavier -- like tulane, loyola, and xavier.
dr. norman francis is the longest tenured university president in the nation. in late august of 2005, the rising waters of the train would forever change his city, is university, and his life -- the rising waters of katrina would forever change his city, his university, and his life. it is summer, so it is peaceful around here. one cannot look at the surroundings and everything and think there was a storm that came through here five years ago. >> it is strange. we came back. there was 6 feet of water all along these buildings. this canal to the left overflowed. you cannot see the bridge that we're going to pass. tavis: this canal is in part responsible for so much of the water that hit the school?
>> correct, and this broke further down by the lake. when the canal broke, the water that was supposed to be going into the lake went down and the like water came in. so that is the water that really started to flood this whole area. we talk about this catastrophe, but many people call it manmade, because the levees broke. not just flooded, but they broke, because they were not built for the kind of water that we received. we planted every blade of grass because it had been ruined. what new orleans is still faced with, tavis, is bridge of pipes underground. why? that water sat for three weeks. i don't know the mathematical pressure, but when i heard it, it was unbelievable. tavis: these buildings at xavier -- and you are the
longest serving university president in the country, so you have had a lot to do with the growth and expansion of these campuses -- of this campus. these are historic buildings. what happens when you have a campus full of historic buildings like this and they are all under water? >> well, you work in a hurry, and we did that. when we came back, the water was still on the ground and we were hiring contractors. when i came back the first two weeks, generators were all over the place. this building was built in 1932, and you will never build another building like this because it is too costly, but it withstood every hurricane we have ever had. we have had wind, not water to the extent we had. i slept in here for at least two hurricanes, did not think about the fact that it could have flooded, but i knew this was the strongest building we had. tavis: you mentioned, like many
others, you lost your home. i was crushed because i knew you had lost your home, but i was really crushed because that kitchen table -- i sat with you and your family, eating some great meals at that table that you all had had for years, and i hated that that kitchen table the not survive. >> i spent months building that table. tavis: i know that you really hate it, but you ended up losing your home. the difference between you and others who lost their homes is that you were trying to deal with the loss of your home, but you had thousands of students who you are responsible for at the same time, whose parents from all across the country wanted to know about their babies and how to get them home and were the ok. how do you navigate trying to get your own life back on line and you are responsible for thousands of students? >> the right answer is i did not even think about my home.
i knew my wife was safe and everybody else in the family was safe and i put them aside. i think when you come to a catastrophe, you don't think about your personal side of things, you think about your commitment to people. i chaired the louisiana recovery authority to one half years while i was working -- 2 1/2 years while i was working on building the university. if you had nothing before katrina or were marginal, you lost everything. i tell people all the time, the story and the numbers that don't talk about are the people who died of broken hearts. they were taken out of the city, watching television, watching the area, and saw their homes under water. those people died. i went to more funerals right after that. the tragedy is such that something happens. you either give up or you find
the adrenaline to proceed. tavis: we have been friends for years, which has been a great honor. you cannot focus on your own home because you had to focus on the people you were serving, the thousands of students at xavier. the governor called you and asks you to chair the louisiana recovery authority, so your plate is very full. more than you could pray on. and i am wondering five years later if you had any sense, have taken the time to really wrestle with, understand psychologically the personal told this has taken on norman francis. it has to take a toll on you. your handsome, but you are no spring chicken. >> well, i don't feel it yet, frankly. tavis: don't feel it, or don't
want to admit it? >> we were sitting near a table, and a doctor said to me, there are some people who have depression and don't know it. i said, are you talking about me? nothing has stopped for me. if you keep doing things, you don't think about the problems. one day, maybe it will find me sitting in a chair, silent, and they will have to shake me, but that has not happened yet. i am sure it has taken a toll, but god has been good. i have great faith, and what brought us backed in 4 1/2 months, when we met in the town, said we're coming back in for a half months. one person on my staff said this guy must be crazy. i did not hear that. tavis: that is why he is still working, because you did not hear that. >> but the fact is that something happens, and hopefully you never have to go through that, but something happens
where the adrenaline rushes and you say i have to do this, and that has been my temperament. tavis: you got the school back on line in 4 1/2 months, some seniors were concerned about graduating on time and getting into the workforce. xavier produces more pharmacists than any school in the entire nation. how did the students survive, now that you look back on that? >> that is a good question. i call them to heroes. i also must say, thank god for the schools around this country that took these kids in. almost all of them spent some time in schools around the country, all around. tavis: how many schools? >> at least 50. presidents would say, we have some of your kids here. the fortunate thing, we came back in 4 1/2 months, and 70%
of the kids returned. every glass -- every class graduated on time. the class of 2010 started after katrina. they started in 2006, when we had come back. they came back with the faith we would be here. tavis: then-senator obama gave the commencement for the first class, as i recall? >> exactly. i had not heard him speak before, but he did a marvelous job. the kids gave him a standing ovation several times, because he sensed it. having to wonder about whether we would ever graduate from xavier, yet we came back in august of 2006 and they were graduating. tavis: and he was their first choice? >> he was, and we were lucky, but he decided that is the one
of what to do. and they will never forget that. it was something like putting a the crown -- like putting the crown on their decision to come back. tavis: i know you are about to break ground for a new chapel, so how has life around here changed over the last five years? >> over the last five years, we have been very fortunate. one thing in this catastrophe that i learned is the support that we got from people -- the little lady who heard me on npr, on the radio, set me a letter that said i don't have much money, but i heard you on the radio and here is my gift, $25. it was touching. the government of qatar gave us $17.5 million, and gave $100 million to the entire gulf
coast. the past five years, we have lived on the goodness and the beneficiaries -- as beneficiaries of all these gifts from people, and the young kids who have come to your leads to help out, it has been unbelievable -- who have come to new orleans to help out, it has been unbelievable. they were coming in every 3 weeks. over the past five years, we have been very busy. that sign at the top, that was the one thing that you have to choose that would be true to every student who comes to xavier, and we chose that. that is analytical reasoning and having reasoning throughout your curriculum. tavis: politically, the country and the city has changed dramatically over the last five years. bush was president, obama is president. >> right.
tavis: nagin was mayor,, now there -- nagin was mayor, now there is a new mayor. you are at the top of the list as one of the most respected citizens. >> you are kind. tavis: it is true, of this city. tell me where this city is headed politically. you have a special relationship with this mayor. his son, mitch, is now the governor. tell me the relationship with his family. you have known them a long time. >> i was the first black to go to law school at loyola, and i met all of these white students there. we hit for a ship like brothers, and we have been that close since 1952. -- we had friendship like brothers. we have been that close since 1952. mitch still calls me surrogate
father, and when he called me two days before the election and said i need you, he received 66% of the vote. they were looking for leadership. they did not care what the caller was. i spoke about two months ago to a large jewish congregation and i said, i want to tell you something, it is in the works. we're going to have a white mayor in this city. and it happened. now, which and i are very close. i asked him, what do you want me to do? he said, i want you to be the co-chair, the task force to find a new police chief. i said, no, not that one. i thought you wanted me to be the chief administrative officer of the city. and we did, we finished on monday. i said, it is all yours now. tavis: since you were involved
in this process, this decision has been very controversial, and the reason the nation cares about this is because if this city is ever going to get back to where it needs to be and better than before, the crime issue has to be dealt with. why did you deliver such a controversial chief? >> because he was far and above everybody else that we saw. 18 people independently chose him. we saw some great police chiefs around the country. he brought a lot of advantages, and mitch said, now you make the choice. yes, he was in the force. he knows this city. he knows what we need to do in this city. he brought crime down where he was. mitch me that his top priority, so he is staking his -- mitch made that his top priority, so he is sticking his career on that.
tavis: politically, new white house administration, new gubernatorial administration, politically, is this city in better hands than it was? >> no question about it. wheae are at the best time of or history in the last 25 years. we were at the cusp, no question about it. we can only go up, but we cannot stand still, because if we do, we are going back, and we're not going back. we need the leadership to help us and we got it. this city did not wait for the government. the community was brought back by the people. new orleans i think, politically, the sense of ownership, this is the time. tavis: how has the student body
changed over the last five years? when americans solve this city under water, i suspect a lot of parents who might have been considering xavier for their students, maybe some of your own all-night, fought, i cannot let my kids ago -- may be some of your own alumni, thought, i cannot let my kids go down to new orleans. how did they consider sending their baby off to xavier when they saw what happened five that is a good question. it the first class, the class that just graduated, was half of the freshen numbers we had before katrina. half. we're still about 300 down, five years later. tavis: that does not seem so bad. >> not at all. the first one that graduated, we
made a big plan. we want to increase the numbers, 450, next year750, 800. we hate each one of those -- next year 750, 800. we have hit each one of those milestones. we have graduated 520 pharmacist's cents katrina. -- since katrina. like somebody is coming to a gold mine in saying, whoa, i have been looking for pharmacists. tavis: how is it that xavier has become the greatest producer of pharmacists of all colors? how was it your number-one at producing pharmacists in the country? >> we are the no. 1 producer of african-americans to go to medical school, period, and that was true even before katrina.
30 years ago, we read about minorities not going to medical school, and a group of faculty member said, hey, we have been doing this all our lives, but we can increase this. we started summer programs and brought high-school kids in, and they did what that sign said. we talked students how to think analytically. we talk the math, chemistry, biology, and it worked like a charm -- we taught them math, chemistry, biology, and it worked like a charm. tavis: i have always been amazed and a city where there is such abject poverty, since this jewel called xavier that produces so many pharmacists and since so many african-americans to medical school. how was it an institution like this, prior to katrina much less after katrina, thrives in such
an impoverished area? >> another good question. faith in god. every time we open the stores, it is a miracle. there something about success -- every time we open these doors, is a miracle. there's something about success and quality, when she produced that, people come back. -- once you produce that, people come back. we cannot make the mistake. i told the president of harvard one day, we were having coffee, he said, how do you do what? i said i have to play poker with four aces and a wild deuce. tavis: that is quite a metaphor. >> i cannot lose. if i call a hand, i cannot lose. so we have to use our money very
carefully and we have to make sure we know what we're doing. and i am being very honest when i say that. it is faith in god and hard work. tavis: you have been president now longer than any person and the country at any other college or university, 42 years. you got the school back on line 4 1/2 months after the storm, almost impossible, yet you did it. you are almost 80 years old, the recipient of the presidential medal of freedom, the highest award that could receive. why are you still here? your legacy is locked and loaded, in case she did not know that. am i have seen a lot of guys with -- >> i have seen a lot of guys retire, walking with canes. i will know when it is time. i still have energy and i still have a few things to do. and i did not do this all by
myself. i have had a lot of great people. and if i ever had a question about having great people, katrina proved that i did. tavis: i have been talking this week with all kinds of residents, from the mayor down, or the mayor up, depending on one's perspective, but i've been talking to people all over the city, and if i have heard one time, i have heard this countless times, this is a catholic institution. i know you are a person of deep and abiding faith, but how does that faith situated self in your presidency? >> it allows me to believe that things can happen even when people feel it will not happen. faith is not knowledge. when you have faith, you don't know it is going to happen. it is the belief that it is going to happen and you believe strongly enough that you make to work it happened. that is how it works for me.
by the same token, i have to use myself as an example for other people to believe. because if they don't believe, we're not going anywhere. this is a faith community, no question. a lot to make it very clear, we work hard. we have to have people who are smart, passionate, and who believe in people, and that is the secret. more for us than anybody else, we have to make sure young people when they look at our faces that we believe that they can learn, and we do. you told them to high expectations and. altogether, and it works. -- and you put that all together, and it works. these 40-some years went fast. but we were busy, and there is something. people ask, what do you find it is the greatest thing in your years? it is saturday morning, watching
those kids standing on that step, looking at me with their deployment in their hand. last year and a share in happened. ashcans, and i say congratulations. -- i shake hands and i say congratulations. one young lady came up and said, but when a handshake, a lot a hug. that is the love. tavis: that love is shared by so many and new orleans. president bush awarded him the presidential medal of freedom, the highest civilian honor and the country. dr. francis is the former chairman of the ways in of 40 recovery, and in that capacity -- of the louisiana recovery authority, and they're back to returning to be a shining example for the city. good night from los angeles. thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith. >> for more information on today's show, visit tavis smiley at pbs.org
tavis: hi, i'm tavis smiley. join me next time as we continue to look at new orleans five years after katrina with one family's remarkable journey. that is next time. i will see you then. >> all i know is his name is james, and he needs extra help with his reading. >> i'm james. >> yes. >> to everyone making a difference, you help us all live better. >> nationwide insurance supports tavis smiley. with every question and answer, nationwide insurance is proud to join tavis in working to improve financial literacy and remove obstacles to economic empowerment one conversation at a time. nationwide is on your side. >> and by contributions to your pbs station from viewers like you. thank you. [captioning made possible by kcet public television] captioned by the national captioning institute --www.ncicap.org--